The old hippie sat facing Malmquist, his rainbow-tattooed penis proudly displayed. “It’s like this,” he said, an imaginary sphere poised on his fingertips.
“Hey, how’s it going?”
“That’s what I was getting at.”
“Haven’t we had this conversation before?”
“All conversation is the same. What’s different is the man.”
“Cool. Here’s to Ray.” Malmquist clinked glasses with Cornelius. “Damn this ale is good. Why did I just toast to Ray?”
“That’s just what I was getting at.”
“One minute I was talking to her, then I’m talking to you. I don’t remember you coming back.”
“I never left, man.”
“But you clearly did.”
“Yeah, I left for a moment, but I didn’t really leave. I’m always here. Ray left.”
“I don’t remember that. Didn’t I already leave and come back?”
“You did. You two left together before I returned.”
“I know as a fact I left because I’m still frying from the acid I ingested in Ancient Rome. But I didn’t know I left with her.”
“You’re on acid now?” asked Cornelius, perking up.
“Yeah, can’t you see my eyes are dilated? Actually I’m not even sure it’s acid. It’s worse than acid. It’s already been a good twelve hours and showing no signs of subsiding.”
“It’s been a long time. The only thing you can find these days is 2C. You sure it’s goofy and not something else?”
“When we toasted glasses just now, my arm stretched at least three yards over to yours. My legs are as long as a giraffe’s. What color is my tunic?”
“Psychedelic. Patchadelic, we call it.”
“Are the colors lit up like a neon sign?”
“You do enough goofy, and everything is lit up like a neon sign.”
From the patchwork tunic’s pocket Malmquist unfurled his gift shop tunic. “What about this one?”
“That’s got writing on it. Is that Italian? What does it say?”
“Witches’ underwear party.”
“Where’d you get that? I haven’t seen a tunic with writing on it since Liberation. It’s not allowed.”
“This is China. Where in China? AMSAR East?”
“You mean Canton? You’ve been to Canton? Nobody who goes to Canton ever comes back. Incredible. You’re the first to come back?”
“No. New Rome. Chinese Rome. I went there fifty-five years ago.”
“You’re saying you’re still high from something you took fifty-five years ago? You must indeed be on something stronger than acid. Really strong.”
“No, I got high in Ancient Rome. I got the tunic in New Rome.”
“This is too trippy for me, man.”
“What could it be?”
“The only dope I know that lasts more than twelve hours is DOM, and you can’t find that anymore. Heard that shit could mess you up for twenty-four hours. Some people for days. But not fifty-five years.”
“More like two thousand years. But I haven’t been high that long. I time-traveled here. What’s DOM?”
“It used to be called STP back during the legendary 1960s. Serenity, Tranquility, Peace. That’s what it stood for. Never did try it myself, but it’s all part of the lore. A century and a half ago.”
“How do you know this?”
“It’s history, man. Aren’t you interested in history?”
“Do you think that’s what this drug could be?”
“How about the visuals?”
“You know that colorful New York-style graffiti on building walls with all the interlocking letters in the shape of balloons and arrows?”
“Yeah, sure, you can still find that stuff on a few old crumbling buildings from last century.”
“I’m seeing that graffiti now everywhere. In the sky, on the street, in the grass, in your hair. The graffiti is so sharp and vivid it’s on the verge of dissolving reality. Like have you ever seen those old films where the celluloid catches fire as you’re watching it? By the way, your face has turned into an elephant’s.”
“You just need to chill.” Cornelius offered Malmquist a blunt.
“No, thanks. If I were to smoke some weed now, you’ll be escorting me to the local clinic with full-blown paranoia. I would not even call this hallucinogen or whatever it is a drug. I need a drug to deal with it. It’s something much more basic, a deeply emotional experience. I have to say it appears to have solved my anger problem, though. Gone. Poof. No more anger. I need another ale.”
“Belinda, honghoji zoi gei ngo pangjau jatbui beizau aa?”
“Anyway, I escaped from New Rome just in time. I accidentally turned on a thousand bathers in the Diocletian Baths and they’re after me.”
“How did you do that?”
“Another one of these Italian tunics, which I gave to Delilah before I came here.”
“Ray. Don’t you remember? When she was fifteen. She later changed her name to Ray. Anyway, you know how to make a woman squirt?”
“Well, you can make a woman excited, right? Get your fingers dripping wet and write on this tunic, and the fumes from the chemical reaction will get you high. We can try it. All we need is to find a woman to wear it and make her horny.”
Belinda brought Malmquist his ale. Cornelius’ parrot was perched on her shoulder.
“Oh, there’s your — ”
“Parrot,” chirped the bird.
Cornelius presented the tunic and translated for her Malmquist’s proposal. “Keoigong, jyugu nei saujam gozan zoeksoeng nigin pouzi, faahok faanjing mouceo ge jin wui bei ngodei hao hai. Nei soeing si maa?”
At first she was confused and lifted up her own tunic, exposing her thick red pubic muff, before the bizarre remark registered and she responded with a smirk, “Nei tung jicin jatjoeng gam so.”
“Her face has turned into a lemur’s. You two really don’t want to inhale this drug,” said Malmquist. “But if I could see that gorgeous policewoman again I’d happily teach her how to squirt. On the other hand, it would be the end of me if she were to ingest this drug. What’s her name, again? Ingmon? No, Ray told me another name.”
“Oh, you must be thinking of Wing-yee, the lass in our ward. Everyone is after her. But you’re right, you wouldn’t want to do that. You can do anything with her if she likes you, but they don’t have the same drug culture we do.”
“Yes, Wing-yee. That’s the name. Where is Ray anyway?”
“Just as I was trying to explain. Let’s go to her place now.”
“Yeah, I’d like to see it. I want to know what such a strange person’s home looks like.”
“But you’ve been there before.”
“No, I haven’t.”
“You truly are a trip. I’ve been there with you.”
“That can’t be.”
“Maybe you just forgot. Once we get there, it will jog your memory.”
“The only other possibility, which I’m gradually suspecting,” he said as he scratched his head, “is I went there in the future and I haven’t gotten there yet.”
“Yes,” Cornelius considered. “That’s quite logical and you may be right. Except that I have already gotten there. Well, we’ll see what happens when we get there.”
On the way out, past the Buffalo Bar, Malmquist noticed something in the General Store. “Wait. I want to buy a new tunic. How much do they cost? Can you lend me the money?”
“They’re for free. Just take one.”
Malmquist fingered the patchwork on one and compared it to his own. “Seems the same. Are they of the same quality as the one I was originally given?”
“They’re all the same. Standard issue, hand-made by the community.”
“I think I’ll just help myself to this one, thank you,” he said as he stuffed the tunic in his other pocket. “Why doesn’t it advertise the ‘Heartland Cafe’ on it, like the old Heartland Cafe T-shirts that used to be sold here? Isn’t this supposed to be a gift shop in this so-called museum?”
They headed out of the restaurant, the parrot back on Cornelius’s shoulder, and over to Ray’s place around the corner on Morse Avenue.
“No way!” said Malmquist as they arrived at Ray’s building. “The Record Exchange! I thought it closed down. I came here all the time in the 1980s, in the heyday of secondhand record shops and it was on my rotation list. Can we have a look inside?”
“It’s just as packed with records as ever. People still play records?”
“Records are all we have.”
“What happened to the digital universe? Did it collapse? Oh, no, they’ve got Blue Öyster Cult on! Spare me. I’m into classic rock but please not them.”
Malmquist flipped through several stacks of records in the bins. “Holy fuck, they’ve even got the categories in the same sections as the old store! How the hell did they figure that out?”
“Keoi soeng gong ne?” the clerk at the front counter asked Cornelius, nodding at Malmquist.
“Yep, mostly twentieth century. I guess that makes sense,” he continued. “But the covers are all really old and faded and brittle. No wonder. Reminds me of when my mother once bought up an old Edison cylinder machine and a bunch of music cylinders from an antique store when I was a kid. But I can’t tell if the colors on the covers are my hallucinations or the original artwork. Okay, that’s enough for now. I’ll have to come back here later to have a closer look. Maybe I might even find some of my old records I traded here. Let’s go see Ray. We’re going down there?”
“Ray owns the store.”
Malmquist followed Cornelius down a stairway into the store’s basement. It had been converted into a bedroom, a large space with gold shag carpeting and a king-size futon in the center with a purple velvet bedspread.
“Wow, talk about totally retro seventies! But of course. Delilah had all that down as a teenager in her New Gary pad.”
“Ray has the largest collection of black light posters in Chicago.”
A woman with shapely hips in tight striped police slacks was standing with her back to them at the far end of the room, looking through the owner’s record collection.
“Ray?” asked Malmquist.
“Ngo jatzik haidou danggan nei aa,” the woman said, without moving. Then she turned around to face Malmquist, a shock of wavy black hair obscuring her thick brows and parted lips.
“Oh!” he exclaimed. “It’s…Wing-yee?”
“That’s what I was trying to — ”
“Say,” chimed in the parrot.
“You look different. You cut your hair. Why are you wearing a uniform? Where’s Ray?”
Cornelius conveyed these questions to Wing-yee in Cantonese. She turned back to the records. “Ngodei dou soeng zi. Waake nei honghoji bong ngodei.”
“She says she’s hoping you could help.”
“What, Ray’s missing?”
“Nidou jau hungtiu aa?” Wing-yee asked Cornelius, approaching him and fanning her face. “Tai mun laa.”
“We’re looking for the fan. Couldn’t live in a place without windows myself,” he said.
“”There’s no air conditioning?”
Since there was no place to sit down except on the futon, Wing-yee sat at the head and invited the two to join her on the bed. She unbuttoned the upper half of her uniform and wiped the perspiration between and under her breasts, and her forehead, with a handkerchief. “Soeng tung Ray haimaai jatzi hai geisi?” she asked Malmquist.
“She wants to know when you were last here.”
“I don’t remember ever being here.”
Cornelius translated back to Wing-yee. She arched her torso, squeezing her neck with one hand and prodding her lower back with the other, before lying face down on the futon. She lifted her face to Malmquist. “Dahp — ”
“Gwat,” said the parrot.
“She wants you to massage her.”
Malmquist got on top of her and began kneading her back side. “I can do a better job if I can use oil.”
Cornelius relayed this to Wing-yee. She got up, went in the bathroom, returned with a bottle of massage oil in one hand and her police shirt in the other, and lay back down.
“I need to loosen these as well,” he said, tugging at her pants. She reached under to unbuckle them and he slid them part way off her hips.
“Waabei ngo zi nei zi keoi sojau ge si,” she asked him, as Cornelius interpreted.
“I first met her in Gary, Indiana, when she was fifteen,” he said as he glided his taut fingers up her paraspinal muscles. “We reminisced about that time when I last saw her here. Cornelius, you recall our conversation at the Heartland, don’t you? She told me the future. I mean, she told me what would happen soon afterward at the time. Danny was going to kill Gunther. She told me how she got out of New Gary and a bit about the collapse of the United States and China’s takeover. But nothing since then. Naturally, that wouldn’t mean anything to you guys, half a century later.”
Malmquist worked his hands further down her buttocks and inner thighs. She arched them up in evident satisfaction, and he removed her slacks.
“Nei zeoikan mei jingwo keoi?” she asked.
“I did see her recently, in Chinese Rome. She somehow got teleported there, wearing this very tunic I’m wearing now. And she’s trapped there until we can find a way to get her back to New Gary. Again, I mean her younger self, Delilah, the fifteen year old. Not Ray. But you know what’s odd, come to think of it? Why didn’t Ray ever mention anything about getting stuck in Chinese Rome? Or how she was finally able to get back? Surely she would have remembered that. And it would help me get her back now if I knew.”
Wing-yee turned over. Her breasts swam across her chest and her legs were parted. “Bei ngodei gonggong jigu,” she said.
“You have the finest pubic hair formation I’ve ever seen, like black lace,” said Malmquist by way of response, as he lifted up her legs and dipped his mouth in her pussy. “Salty and — ”
“Sweet,” said the parrot, Cornelius having bent forward to watch. “She wants to talk about your relationship at present with Ray,” he said.
She breathed heavily. Then lifting up her head she remonstrated, “Nei jicin leigwo dou. Dimhaai ng singjing?”
“I truly do not remember ever coming to this place. I don’t deny it. I just haven’t arrived here yet. The fact I’m now talking to you about it means I must have jumped ahead in time to get to this point.”
Wing-tee lay back again.
“I’ve discovered some flaws in this masterpiece of nature,” Malmquist announced to Cornelius. “Her breasts are flat on her chest and droop along the sides. They’re too loose. And her hands are rough and stubby, suitable for a policewoman, I guess. Her nostrils are upturned and too prominent. The outer edges of her ears are irregular and not smooth and elegant. Her ankles aren’t thick but they’re just okay, not finely turned. She tastes great but like the durian fruit has a strong smell, the kind that penetrates the entire room, a smell of coffee with a sweet tinge of shit. She’s far from a masterpiece, in fact, and that’s good, because she’s so beautiful she needs these flaws to anchor her or she’d float away into the ether.”
He crawled up, pulled at an earlobe with his teeth and whispered in her ear, “I love you.”
“Nei tung keoi jatzi fangwo?” she whispered back in Cornelius’ ear, who had crawled up on her other side.
“Have you slept with Ray?” Cornelius asked Malmquist.
“Not that I remember. At least not in her current incarnation. But what’s going on with Ray? I’m really confused. Hey, I have an idea. Let me put the Chinese Rome tunic on, and we might be able to communicate with her if she’s online. I mean Delilah. Even if she’s still fifteen.”
He took off his patchwork tunic and put on the tunic adorned with the Italian words “LA FESTA DELLA STREGHE IN MUTANDE.” As soon as he put it on, it read:
“See, the writing changes when I wear it. But it’s nonsense messages until I get online. And then I can communicate with someone else who’s wearing the same tunic, by writing on it. As soon as detective Melynchuk or Delilah puts on the tunic we can conference.”
“Ray went missing.”
“We don’t know exactly. The last person seen with her was — ”
“You,” said the parrot.
“Ngo heoi zoeng keoi daai japlei,” Wing-yee told Cornelius, as she got dressed.
“You’re the prime suspect in her disappearance.”
“She wants you to go with her.”
“To the station.”
* * *
Forthcoming (September 2017):
The Kitchens of Canton